Climate Change and Socioeconomic Development Relationship


10 Apr 2018

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Climate change has been discussed since over 200 years ago but has only gained relevance and been taken seriously in the 1950s (Harding, 2007). As states come to realize the possible disastrous consequences of global climate change and attempt to tackle it by implementing certain policies, they are invariably confronted with a dilemma. To prioritise climate change, states would have to reduce their focus on socio-economic development, at least in the short run. Many are hesitant to do so for fear that intra-generational inequalities would be exacerbated (Heil & Selden, 2001). However, we believe that climate change should in fact be prioritised over socio-economic development as climate mitigation enables both intra and inter-generational inequalities to be addressed concurrently. Conversely, we might not achieve the same if we were to prioritise socio-economic development over climate change.

It has been argued that the only way to reduce income disparity is to promote further economic growth. Unfortunately, this single-minded focus on improving a country’s global economic standing has resulted in large disparities between the rich and poor, be it within or between nations. This is because rich countries can afford to invest in machinery and labour to increase output and seize market shares while poorer countries lose out in such comparative advantage.

However by taking charge of climate change, this inequality can be alleviated. To start off, organic agriculture could be adopted as a climate mitigation strategy. The various farming systems used in organic agriculture can diversify income sources and reduce the susceptibilities of agriculture to impacts of diseases and climate change such as higher frequencies of droughts or flooding. Additionally, it is able to improve soil water absorption and retention capacity which reduces soil erosion. Consequently, less CO2 and N2O would be emitted from less soil erosion and the non-usage of harmful farming system inputs - fertilisers and pesticides (Muller, 2009).

This effort can be further supported by implementation of free-trade movements (Carter, 2007), which enables consumers to buy products directly from the producers in less developed countries. This eliminates cash flow to middlemen and allows smaller farms from less developed countries to earn higher incomes. Not only are we mitigating climate change by encouraging more environmentally friendly methods of farming, we are actually also allowing producers, who would otherwise be disadvantaged due to their inability to gain comparative advantage, sustain their business. Hence, tackling climate change would allow to address both climate change and socio-economic inequalities concurrently which we would not be able to achieve should we only focus on socio-economic development.

Moreover, pursuing socio-economic development would become counterproductive if the consequences of climate change, which will hinder socio-economic development, are disregarded. One increasingly pronounced consequence is ocean acidification - the uptake of carbon dioxide in the oceans. This phenomenon reduces shellfishes’ abilities to form their carbonated shells and subsequently lowers their survivability (Fabry et al, 2008; Holman et al, 2004). These adverse effects are subsequently translated to economic losses in our marine fisheries which rely heavily on the harvests of these commercially valuable marine organisms (Gazeau et al, 2007).

In addition, these effects combined with global warming are damaging and bleaching the reef-building corals which are homes to remarkable numbers of marine animals (Phinney et al, 2006, Lumsden et al, 2007). With their disappearance, the productivities of fisheries are further reduced. For cities like New Bedford which depends greatly on fisheries revenues, the revenue losses would adversely alter its main economic activities and demographics, and worsen income disparities (Cooley and Doney, 2009)

Coral reefs also provide coastal protection (Moberg and Folke, 1999) which buffer some of the highest global population densities and poorer populations located at the coastal regions from becoming environmental refugees of natural calamities (Shi and Singh, 2003). Moreover, severity and frequency of natural disasters such as droughts and floods have increased due to changing weather patterns, leaving Small island Developing states (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) extremely susceptible to significant economic losses in productivity and expenditures in recovery (Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, 2009).

Furthermore, changes in rainfall patterns and temperature rise may also alter current land use for food crops, resulting in novel plant pathogen or pest problems. This could potentially reduce global food supplies (Cannon, 1998; Coakley et al., 1999; Parker & Gilbert, 2004) and worsen famines in developing countries. The temperature rise also encourages the spread of malaria and other diseases resulting in dire health problems. Hence, the consequences of climate change would hinder nations from achieving socio-economic development if one does not approach socio-economic development with climate change in mind.

By prioritising socio-economic development in the name of alleviating intra-generational inequalities, we are then ignoring another form of equally important inequality and it is none other than inter-generational inequalities. As moral and rational human beings, we have the capacity to plan ahead and empathise with others. Therefore, since we are able to foresee the possible future of our descendants and empathise with their plight, we should definitely act on climate change rather than simply consider fulfilling our own current wants and depriving them of their future needs.

There is sufficient and strong evidence that the globe is facing severe depletion in energy-producing resources (Hartmann, 2004). Furthermore, our indiscriminate use of Earth’s resources is contributing to climate change at an alarming rate (Halsnaes, 1996). Humans residing in Europe and Asia began burning coal for consumption after they unearthed it approximately 900 years ago. This marked the start of humans’ use of ancient sunlight, which is stored energy during ancient times, or around 400 million years ago. Later, humans also unearthed oil and it exponentially increased our ability to sustain life and consume as compared to before, where we could only survive on current sunlight, that is, energy stored in plants (Hartmann, 2004).

These discoveries are particularly significant for the human race as it is through the use of ancient sunlight to sustain life that we are able to alter the environment for our other uses. Since then, we have been able to produce more clothes and food. This is because a lot of land that should have been used to trap current sunlight has now been converted for other purposes such as mass growing of cotton and food crops. All of this would not have been possible if humans had not discovered ancient sunlight that they could tap on (Hartmann, 2004).

Humans’ ability to sustain life grew dramatically and so did the human population in terms of its sheer number. According to Hartmann, “In less than a tenth of a percent of the total history of humanity, we have experienced over 90 percent of the total growth of the human population” (2004).

However, these finite resources would one day be depleted. Sources unanimously agree that the oil supply is draining at an extreme rate. In 1996, oil industry experts predicted that we have only an “almost” 45-year-supply of oil left. Other experts in the industry are way less optimistic. Furthermore, due to accelerated population growth in the Asia’s developing countries, global energy demand is expected to double by 2020 (Hartmann, 2004).

Should we lose this important source of energy, we risk having seven billion starve in the 2050 (Hartmann, 2004). This highlights how dire the situation is and how imperative it is for us to address the problem. If we were to simply prioritise socio-economic development, there is almost no incentive for us to reduce our use of these resources. On the contrary, we might end up devising methods to better tap on them to increase economic growth. However, should we decide to place climate change at the fore, we would inevitably have to reduce our oil and coal consumption since using them would only contribute to climate change (Le Quéré et al., 2012). In other words, we would be addressing two problems just by giving one attention.

While it is true that intra-generational inequalities are severe at the moment, inter-generational inequalities would be as well if we fail to address the issue of depleting resources and climate change. It definitely would not be fair for us to leave a globe that our future generations would not be able to enjoy living in with all the devastating climatic conditions and lack of resources. Therefore, climate change should be prioritised over socio-economic development before it is too late for us to.

Socio-economic development is undeniably an important goal for all nations. However, if we ignore climate change and continue to use our resources in an unsustainable manner, the potential destruction of the environment and depleted resources would prevent us from moving forward in achieving socio-economic development for the present and the future. It is hence essential that nations collaborate and commit themselves in mitigating climate change. As mentioned by Pew Center (2002), “Climate mitigation is not the goal, but rather an outgrowth of efforts driven by economic, security, or local environmental concerns.”


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